The history of the nativity: how much is known about the birth of Jesus?

Can we take the story of Christmas as gospel? Writing for BBC History Revealed, Spencer Mizen thumbs through the conflicting accounts of Christ's birth to separate fact from fable

A stained glass depiction of the nativity.

Slade and Cliff Richard on the airwaves, shopping centres full to bursting, glittering trees and sprigs of mistletoe, teachers frantically putting the finishing touches to school nativity plays up and down the land – the Christmas season is definitely one that is steeped in tradition.

Advertisement

In excess of two billion people consider the festive season to be the most important holiday of the year. In fact, Christmas has become such a heavyweight in the global calendar that it’s now celebrated by more people than any other religious event on the planet.

But what about the 2,000-year old tale that lies at the heart of these celebrations? Is it cold-hard historical fact, a theological flight of fancy, or something in between? Virtually everyone knows the nativity story – Joseph and Mary’s search for room in the inn, the shepherds tending their flocks, the three wise men arriving in the stable bearing glittering gifts. But these episodes were recorded by shadowy scribes, with little corroborating evidence, a very long time ago. The story of Jesus’s birth may be among the most celebrated in all of literature, but is it possible to root it in history?

This story was recorded by shadowy scribes, with little corroborating evidence, a long time ago

This is a question that scholars have pondered for centuries, and most have tried to find the answer in the pages of the most important books in the entire Christian canon: the gospels.

Gospel truths

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John may be the authors on whose writings much of our knowledge of Jesus’s life and teaching are based, but for historians investigating the nativity story, they throw up two major problems. The first is that two of the books – Mark and John – fail to mention Jesus’s birth at all; the second is that the two that do – Matthew and Luke – disagree on many of the details.

Matthew and Luke both tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and that his mother, Mary, was a virgin when she gave birth. But these are the only episodes of the nativity story in which the two accounts converge.

We’ve got Matthew to thank for the appearance of an angel to Joseph in a dream, the three wise men following the star from the east, and Herod the Great’s infamous massacre of the innocents. Luke mentions none of these. Instead, it’s from Luke that we learn that “an angel of the Lord” appeared before some shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night”, that Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in a Roman census, and that Jesus was laid in a manger.

For some academics, the discrepancies between Luke and Matthew’s accounts cast further doubt on the nativity’s historical credibility, but not everyone agrees. “If the evangelists were going to make up a story about the origins of Jesus, and keep their story straight, you would expect their stories not to differ in detail,” argues Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “The fact that they do, suggests we are dealing with two independent witnesses talking about the same events, with the same core substance affirmed by both.”

Mary and Joseph at the census of Quirinius – one event used to date Jesus's birth
Mary and Joseph at the census of Quirinius – one event used to date Jesus’s birth. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

There’s another fact to take into account here, and that’s that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels around 70 years after Jesus’s birth. Given that eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’s life were, by then, rapidly dying out – and that many early Christian communities were isolated from one another, scattered by political upheaval – you could argue that it would be quite an achievement if Matthew and Luke’s accounts did agree.

The lack of consensus between Matthew and Luke certainly didn’t trouble Dionysius ‘the Humble’. In what would become the sixth century AD, this prominent Roman monk invented the Anno Domini era, declaring with cast-iron certainty that Jesus was born in AD 1. It was a bold assertion and it stuck, creating the dating system that we use to this very day. But were Dionysius’s calculations any more than pure guesswork? Can he really have divined the precise year of Jesus’s birth?

From a distance of two millennia, it’s a fiendishly difficult riddle to solve. But three incidents in the gospel writers’ accounts of the nativity – the census, the massacre of the innocents, and the star of Bethlehem – at least offer some potential clues.

The Roman census – requiring all Jews to return to their ancestral home to be counted – is one of the most famous incidents in Luke’s version of the nativity story. Some historians have cast doubt on the tale, opining that it simply wasn’t Roman practice to uproot families in such a way. However, we know from other historical sources that the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius, called a census of Judea – and that he did so in AD 6. Could, then, Jesus have been born in this very year?

If three magi did follow a star two millennia ago, where exactly were they heading?

It’s possible. But there’s a problem, presented by one of the most notorious episodes in Matthew’s version of the nativity: the massacre of the innocents. This sees Herod the Great (the Roman-appointed King of Judea), perturbed by the news that the “King of the Jews” had just been born in Bethlehem, ordering that all males in that town below the age of two be put to death.

Grim fact? Elaborate fiction? Again, opinion is divided. Some claim that if Herod had indeed ordered the killings, then the first-century historian Josephus – a vehement critic of the Judean king – would have been quick to condemn him. Witherington, however, sees little reason to doubt Matthew. “So ruthless and paranoid was Herod that he killed his very own children, fearing they planned to usurp his throne. Surely, then, he was more than capable of murdering unknown babies.

The massacre of the innocents
The massacre of the innocents only appears in Matthew’s gospel. (Image by Alamy)

“But given that Bethlehem probably had fewer than 1,000 residents, the massacre of the innocents would have been a minor detail in history, only involving a few small children – perhaps no more than six or so.”

Minor detail or not, the slaughter of the innocents can’t have happened in AD 6 – the year of Quirinius’s census – for the simple reason that Herod the Great died in 4 BC, a full ten years earlier. So instead of clearing up the confusion over Jesus’s year of birth, these two incidents merely muddy the waters.

HEROD: JUDEA’S PUPPET KING?

Herod the Great is one of the great bogeymen of the New Testament, the man who earned his place in infamy by ordering – so we’re told – all baby boys in Bethlehem to be put to death. Herod, who reigned as King of Judea from 37 BC to 4 BC, remains a reviled figure 2,000 years later. But there are those historians who argue that he more than merited his title of ‘Great’.

Great or irredeemably cruel, Herod could never have been the dominant force in Judea without being propped up by the Romans. He was very much their man in the east, and he astutely cemented his powerbase by cultivating good relations with two of the most powerful men in the empire: first the great general Mark Antony, and then Emperor Augustus, who appointed Herod as King of Judea and twice increased his territory.

It was with Roman money that Herod earned his reputation as one of the ancient world’s great builders, overseeing such architectural gems as the port of Caesarea on the Mediterranean’s eastern coast, and the monumental desert stronghold of Masada that overlooks the Dead Sea. His reign also coincided with something of a cultural golden age, when historians, poets and philosophers flooded into his court.

Nonetheless his reputation as a cruel and tyrannical leader appears to be fully warranted. With age came growing paranoia and mental instability, which climaxed in the killing of his wife and two of his children. Even Emperor Augustus, not averse to acts of brutality himself, was moved to observe that it was better to be Herod’s dog than his son.

Star of wonder

But what about the star of Bethlehem? Can that shine any light on the conundrum? The image of the three kings – or magi – following the star to the stable is arguably the most celebrated of the entire nativity story.

For centuries, academics have attempted to peg this star to an astronomical event, one that can in turn be linked to a precise date. Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the 17th-century scientific revolution, suggested that the magi may have been intrigued by a series of three conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred in 7 BC.

Others have suggested that the star may have been a comet or nova, like one reported by Chinese and Korean stargazers in about 5 BC. The reality is, of course, we’ll never know for sure – especially if the star was, in fact, some kind of local phenomenon as opposed to a significant celestial event. As John Mosley, an astronomer at Griffith Observatory in California, puts it: “Maybe it was something that required interpretation, rather than something brilliant.”

If three magi did indeed follow a star to Bethlehem two millennia ago, who were they and where were they heading? A group of men called the magi certainly existed in Jesus’ time. They belonged to a priestly sect from Persia (now Iran), described by the Greek historian Herodotus nearly 500 years earlier. The magi had knowledge of astronomy and the interpretation of prophecy, which is supposedly how they knew it was ‘time’ for Jesus’s birth. They have gone by several names: in one account from Persia they are identified as Hormizdah, Yazdegerd and Perozdh, with the Western church settling on Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar or Gaspar.

“The magi were astrologers and counsellors to kings who made predictions,” says Witherington. “They would have taken the star as a sign in the heavens from God that something major was happening.”

A silver star inside the Church of the Nativity marks the spot where, it was believed, Jesus was born
A silver star inside the Church of the Nativity marks the spot where, it was believed, Jesus was born. (Image by THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

As to where the magi were headed, for centuries, Christians have believed that Jesus was born at the site currently occupied by Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest locales in the whole of Christendom. As for the abode in which he was born, that could perhaps have been a cave used to shelter livestock. Alternatively, it may well have been a split-level house favoured by peasants, with the residents living upstairs and their animals kept below. Archaeological excavations suggest that such buildings were small and dark with mud-plastered walls. These might not have been chiselled out of the bedrock, but they were no less humble for all that.

It is, of course, on 25 December that the celebrations marking Jesus’s birth reach a crescendo. Yet few people now argue that this is the precise date on which the events described by Luke and Matthew took place. “The story about shepherds in the fields with flocks may suggest that the birth of Jesus actually took place in spring,” says Witherington.

So how did 25 December come to be universally accepted as the official date of the Christmas festival? The answer appears to be because this was already a time of year when people across Europe were used to letting their hair down. By the fourth century AD, midwinter festivals – marking the moment when the Sun started coming back and the days got longer – were a well-established fixture in the pagan calendar.

In the British Isles, druids cut mistletoe and gave it as a blessing to mark the winter solstice. In Scandinavia, people marked the ‘Yule’ festival by dragging evergreens indoors and setting logs alight. And, above all, in Rome, revellers had long celebrated the festival of Saturnalia with an orgy of drinking and eating in honour of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

Christmas may not have been particularly original, but it was fantastically successful. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the festival had spread to Egypt by AD 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, it was being celebrated as far away as Scandinavia. Its prominence in the calendar only increased after Charlemagne was crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’ on Christmas Day in AD 800. By the time William the Conqueror was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066, it was well on its way to becoming the cultural behemoth it is today.

Back in the Conqueror’s day, few would have doubted the historical credibility of the nativity story. Today, in our age of greater scepticism, attitudes have, of course, changed. But does it really matter if the census, the magi and star of Bethlehem are fact or fiction? Should Christians be more concerned with the message that the events surrounding Jesus’s birth convey? Again, that depends who you ask.

“It’s important to understand that history and theology are interwoven in biblical history, and nothing about the life of Jesus can be theologically true that is historically false,” opines Ben Witherington.

Dr Helen Bond, professor of Christian origins at the University of Edinburgh, has a different take. “I don’t think it’s necessary to believe that all those details are historical,” she told a BBC documentary in 2013. “I think that the theology of these stories is what’s important, and that, in the end, is what these authors were trying to get across.”

LISTEN: Explore religion further with BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time archive


Jesus & the nativity: 5 key locales from the gospels 

Though some of the incidents described in the gospels might be hard to verify, pinpointing where they could have taken place is not

1

MARY’S WELL, NAZARETH

This is reputed to be the spot where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, Jesus’s mother, and announced that she would bear the son of God, an event known as the annunciation. Though the current well is a non-functioning reconstruction, it sits above an underground spring that served as a watering hole for Palestinian villagers for centuries.

2

THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE, JERUSALEM

For 1,600 years, Christians have believed that this church in Jerusalem’s old city encloses the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial. Since Constantine the Great dedicated it around AD 336, the church has had something of a chequered history, being destroyed by both Persian and Fatimid armies. The glass-encased Rock of Calvary, where the crucifixion is supposed to have taken place, is the church’s most-visited area today.

3

GETHSEMANE, JERUSALEM

Overlooking eastern Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives sits a site that will forever be associated with anguish and spiritual struggle – the garden of Gethsemane. It was here, according to the gospels, that Jesus agonised over his fate immediately after the Last Supper, telling God that “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

4

AL-MAGHTAS, RIVER JORDAN

The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is believed to have taken place at Al-Maghtas, on the east bank of the River Jordan. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Al-Maghta is considered so important to Jesus’s story that it has attracted popes and heads of state.

5

THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY, BETHLEHEM

The Church of the Nativity is one of Christendom’s holiest sites. The basilica here is the oldest major church in the Holy Land, founded by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in the AD 320s. But it is the grotto, a level below the main church – where a silver star marks the spot where, it’s believed, Jesus was born – that has proved most alluring for visitors for 1,600 years.

Spencer Mizen is a freelance journalist specialising in history.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the Christmas 2019 edition of BBC History Revealed